A Fresh Start: Bringing a Subdivision Ordinance into the 21st Century

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by Erin Callahan, AICP

It takes a lot of work to rewrite ordinance.  Often, there is only time to address specific problems as they present themselves, leaving the entire ordinance to slowly become a confusing jumble of relevant information mixed with outdated language.  Eventually, the ordinance has to be reviewed in its entirety, not just to update anything that was missed in prior targeted revisions but also to create a code that is user-friendly. In the right circumstances, this daunting task can be a fun and informative process that can be accomplished in-house. 

Between 2016 and 2017, the staff of the Village of Los Lunas, New Mexico did just this with our subdivision ordinance.  Los Lunas is small but growing, with a population of nearly 16,000 at the last American Community Survey five-year estimate.  Incorporated in 1928 as a secluded agricultural community, Los Lunas experienced rapid economic and housing development in the 1990s.  Today, development is still bustling, and a functioning subdivision ordinance is more important than ever.  The last full revision took place in 1983, and since then had only been updated in a piecemeal fashion.  The arrangement of information was no longer straightforward, and some requirements were amusingly behind the times – for example, final plats were to be “drawn, scribed or photo-reproduced in black ink on tracing cloth or stable-base polyester material.”  Each subdivision procedure was organized with headings in different orders, the administrative summary procedure authorized by New Mexico State Statute was only described in the Definitions chapter, and certain scenarios where a plat amendment would require a public hearing were not addressed at all.  By early 2016, it was clear that a complete revision was overdue.

While we initially felt that a project of this magnitude could only be accomplished by an outside consultant, the regional planning staff at our local council of governments - the New Mexico Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) – advised that with their regional planning assistance, this could be easily completed by planning staff at Los Lunas.  The regional planning assistance service is a grant-funded program available to rural communities in the region.  We agreed to work with MRCOG, and their assistance was just the right amount of outside help. 

Our goal for the revised ordinance was to establish an organized code with a clearly defined set of subdivision procedures and remove any ambiguity and conflicting information.  We knew that we wanted to take the time for a thorough review up front so that we wouldn’t find issues immediately after having the updated ordinance approved.  To begin the process, Los Lunas staff set broad goals for the final ordinance with MRCOG, which included standardizing and clarifying the review process for applications, ensuring that parks and open space dedication standards were up to date, and reorganizing sections of the ordinance for clarity.  These broad goals provided the foundation for MRCOG to review our existing ordinance, and for Los Lunas to meet with stakeholders to see how our needs aligned. 

Our stakeholders included local developers, engineers, major landholders, and involved residents, all of whom were familiar with our current subdivision process.  Two things were clear from the beginning.  The first was that a subdivision ordinance is not particularly interesting to the general public.  The second was that our local development community relied more on staff interpretation of the ordinance than the ordinance itself.  Los Lunas has always considered itself a development-friendly community, quickly responding to developers’ requests for information and guiding them towards the appropriate land use processes for their project.  The feedback from our local developers was that they were not aware of any issues with the ordinance; staff knowledge and their timely response had shielded them from any confusion we experienced with the code itself.  We interpreted this to mean that our stakeholders were unlikely to take issue with any organizational changes, and since we felt that our procedures mostly worked well, it was encouraging to know that the local development community felt the same way.

After the initial stakeholder meetings, Los Lunas worked with MRCOG to revise drafts of the full ordinance, working towards a clean version with a revised organization, gendered and other outdated language changed or removed, gaps in the definitions filled, and an additional chapter drafted for our procedures.  MRCOG took the bulk of the work at this stage, sending suggestions on outline changes and reviewing state statute and legal definitions to find anything out of compliance.  It was very useful to have an outside set of eyes on the document, and after about three passes, we felt that we had a satisfactory draft to present at public meetings.

Los Lunas organized a lengthy public discussion process for the ordinance revisions, with monthly discussion items held throughout 2017 at regularly scheduled Planning and Zoning Commission meetings.  We planned six meetings to present the ordinance in palatable chunks, to allow the Commission and members of the public to comment prior to bringing a draft ordinance up for approval.  During these meetings, we planned to move from the revised outline to specific topics like updated definitions and procedures.  The public meetings were well-advertised – with regular legal notice, flyers in well-trafficked public buildings in town, a dedicated webpage on Los Lunas’ website, and an email list.  Despite this, we had very few participants beyond the local development community.  This was expected, and this limited participation was still effective.  With their experience working with our subdivision process, these participants offered valuable input that highlighted issues with some of our proposed changes.

As mentioned previously, one of our goals for the ordinance revision was to add a subdivision procedures chapter.  Our current ordinance had established procedures for preliminary and final plat, but they were dated, and the order of their sections didn’t match.  Throughout the ordinance, we also referred to summary process, an alternative administrative approval for very minor subdivisions authorized by NM State Statute, but had no clearly defined procedures for applicants wishing to utilize this process.  We also referred to “replats” in the existing ordinance, but with little information beyond establishing a different fee for replats.  But what was a replat?  In practice, a replat was any administratively-approved application that did not increase the number of lots.  It could also refer to an application that was required to go before a public hearing – for example, because existing private roads were proposed to be dedicated for public maintenance – but only included minor adjustments to lot lines.  There were separate applications and fee schedules for summary plats and replats, but not sufficient information in the ordinance to justify when a replat should go before a public hearing.

We initially attempted to remedy the situation by creating a “Replat Procedures” chapter, which would outline the administrative process used by both replats and summary plats, the conditions under which a replat would require a public hearing, and the public hearing procedure.  The goal with this approach was to define what needed definition while still maintaining the status quo with our application process.  However, when we brought this chapter up for public discussion, not only did the organization of the chapter cause confusion, but there was a general lack of understanding about what a replat even was.  The term “replat” was considered too broad to have its own procedure because once any plat had ever been filed for a piece of land, every subsequent plat on the land would technically be a replat.  Including industrial land and any residential subdivision with an area plan, the majority of land in the Village had been subdivided at one point.  We were not able to give a satisfactory explanation for the questions posed in this discussion, and so we tabled the public discussion to rethink this new chapter. 

This delay came at a fortuitous planned break in the public discussions to prepare the final draft, and so we revised the schedule to spend that break examining our procedures instead and added an extra meeting to discuss our revisions.  During this break, we determined that it would be best to have only one administrative process and that rather than simply defining the circumstances where we had brought replats for public hearing in the past, we could instead create a minor subdivision procedure with a set of conditions that would serve us best in the future.  This revised language was met with no complaints, and the final public discussions moved forward without further delays.

Following all discussion meetings, we held a workshop to review all proposed changes with the Los Lunas Council and brought the revised ordinance before the official public hearing process for approval.  The ordinance was approved without issue, and we felt that the extensive process of discussions and revisions had led us to a draft that was well-received by staff, stakeholders, and elected officials.   While in the beginning, we were apprehensive about the extensive and time-consuming process ahead of us, by the end we all felt that having staff eyes on all stages of the revision process had enabled us to catch minor issues that an outside consultant might have missed.  It was worth the time spent, and so far we are pleased with the outcome.


Resources


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Erin Callahan works for the Village of Los Lunas, NM as the Special Projects Planner, where she works on long range planning efforts, ordinance revisions, GIS mapping and the occasional grant application.  She also teaches classes here and there in the Community Development Department at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning.  When she has the opportunity, she tries to bring planning topics to even younger audiences, like boy scout troops and her kids’ elementary school classes.  Erin is an avid hiker and trail runner, and has three children, whom she is trying to introduce to the world of backcountry camping.


Published in July 2018

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